David Fincher, ‘Strangers on a Train,’ and the Tricky Business of Remaking Hitchcock

It’s a classic good news/bad news scenario: the good news is that director David Fincher, screenwriter Gillian Flynn, and star Ben Affleck are looking to reteam after the critical and popular success of last fall’s Gone Girl. The bad news? It’s for a remake (or, as Variety inexplicably dubs it, a reboot) of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. The news is getting a pretty mixed reception among film buffs, even Fincher diehards, and for good reason: remaking Hitch is not, traditionally, a feat wisely attempted or successfully accomplished.

Hitch certainly wasn’t adverse to the notion of remakes himself; he revisited his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much again in 1956 (creating, consciously or not, a snapshot of the stylistic evolution between his early British films and slicker American studio pictures), and even films that weren’t technically remakes revisited similar characters and themes (Psycho and Frenzy, Suspicion and Dial “M” for Murder, Saboteur and North by Northwest, etc.). But if we’ve learned anything from the many remakes of his works, it’s that just about the only filmmaker capable of replicating Hitchcock was Hitchcock.

His 39 Steps was remade twice for cinemas and once for television; Shadow of a Doubt was remade once for cinemas and once for television; Dial M for Murder got a television and theatrical remake; The Lady Vanishes got one official remake and two unofficial ones; Rear Window was officially remade for television and unofficially, for theaters, as the Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia; and Hitch’s breakthrough film The Lodger was repurposed no less than four times.

Shia LaBeouf in "Disturbia"

If you’re hard pressed to remember many (or any) of these, you’re not alone. The fact that so many filmmakers have tried and failed to remake — or even one-up — Hitch speaks equally, I suppose, to the industry’s reliance on existing properties and directorial ego. But to understand why Hitchcock remakes are such a losing proposition, it’s important to remember one key fact about Alfred Hitchcock: he was steadfastly disinterested in plot, which is the single element that’s easiest to reproduce.

Keep in mind, this is the man who was so blasé about what drove his plots, he literally coined the phrase that filmmakers (and no small number of film-goers) use to describe the thing a movie is about, just so it’s about something. Airtight narratives simply weren’t what he was there for; by the time he’d reached the height of his fame, he would tell his screenwriters the set pieces he wanted to do in his next picture, and direct them to build a script that could connect them.

And as a result, when Dial “M” for Murder is remade in 1998 as A Perfect Murder, it’s nothing special — just another Michael Douglas pseudo-erotic thriller. When Rear Window is (again, unofficially) remade as Disturbia, the claustrophobia of Hitch’s style and his implicit commentary about voyeurism and moviegoing is jettisoned to in favor of pure thriller tropes. And that goes double for Window’s 1998 TV remake, which becomes (rather ghoulishly) less about Hitchcock than the debilitation of star Christopher Reeve.

Anne Heche in Gus Van Sant's remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"

So if what made Hitchcock Hitchcock was style rather than substance, his remakers should simply replicate that style, yes? Eh, no. The most pure and obvious example is Gus Van Sant’s notoriously ill-concieved 1998 remake of Psycho, wherein the filmmaker attempted (with a few minor deviations) to recreate Hitch’s 1960 classic, shot for shot. I still applaud Van Sant for getting a major studio to pony up $60 million for what amounted to an art project (and, indeed, that’s the most entertaining and interesting lens through which to view it), but if Psycho ’98 proved anything, it’s that with Hitchcock, you can know all the notes but still play the song wrong.

Which is not to say that Hitch’s style can’t be replicated — merely that it’s better used in the service of, say, the indirect remakes of someone like Brian DePalma (Rear Window/Body Double, Psycho/Dressed to Kill, Vertigo/Obsession, and so on). But when it comes to reinterpreting Hitchcock, it seems that his stories and themes must be repurposed by filmmakers who have a distinct style of their own. Say what you will about the badly-aged and self-parodic elements of John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, but it finds the central conflict of Notorious employed by a filmmaker with his own voice and aesthetic, and thus seems neither remake nor imitation.

Or, even better, look at another film inspired by Strangers on a Train: Danny DeVito’s 1988 black comedy Throw Momma from the Train. DeVito’s film doesn’t merely acknowledge its inspiration in the credits; it literally includes a scene where DeVito’s character goes to see Strangers on a Train, and lifts its plot as a solution to his personal woes. Throw Momma doesn’t try to duplicate Hitchcock’s style, or even, to a great extent, its source material’s story. It’s its own, unique, enjoyable thing — and inasmuch as Alfred Hitchcock is unique and inimitable, that seems not only the wise way to approach remaking him, but neatly in line with Fincher’s style of interpretation.